Blinken Plays Guitar During Visit to Ukraine

Blinken Plays Guitar During Visit to Ukraine

By Oghale May14,2024

At the end of a somber day in the Ukrainian capital, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken slipped into a seat at Barman Dictat, a crowded basement cocktail bar where a punk-jazz band was squealing away.

After a few songs, the band’s frontman called Mr. Blinken onstage on Tuesday and, by prearrangement, America’s top diplomat slung a red Gibson guitar over his shoulder.

“I know this is a really, really difficult time,” said Mr. Blinken, who had discarded his typical dark suit and tie for blue jeans and a dark button-down shirt. It was a reference to recent Russian military gains. Ukraine’s soldiers, particularly in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, he said, “are suffering tremendously.”

“But they need to know, you need to know, the United States is with you, so much of the world is with you,” he said, hitting the core message of his unannounced visit to Kyiv, a trip intended in part to spotlight nearly $61 billion in additional military aid signed into law by President Biden in April after months of delays mainly caused by a small band of right-wing House Republicans.

The troops, he said under bright stage lights, “are fighting not just for a free Ukraine but for the free world — and the free world is with you too.”

“So, maybe we can try something?” he added. “I don’t know if we can pull this off.”

A moment later, the band had started up, and Mr. Blinken — a longtime guitarist who has played in bands and even has a few tracks available on Spotify — began strumming the opening chords of Neil Young’s anthemic “Rockin’ in the Free World” with at least basic competence.

With its 1989 vintage and a chorus that matches its title, the song evokes America’s triumphalism as Soviet communism began to collapse. It was clearly chosen to underscore one of the central messages of Mr. Blinken’s tenure and the Biden presidency: that Western democracies are in a vital struggle with reactionary authoritarian forces.

To Mr. Blinken, Ukraine — a young democracy at war with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia — is a front line of that battle.

Critics might question the song choice: the Canadian-born Mr. Young is no American nationalist, and the song’s lyrics are cutting about the state of an America with young mothers addicted to drugs, and mocked President George H.W. Bush’s promise of a “kinder, gentler” nation.

In that sense, the song is often misunderstood, much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” — which is not a patriotic anthem but a stinging indictment of Reagan-era America. (That may be one reason Mr. Young sued President Donald J. Trump to stop him from playing his track at 2020 campaign rallies.)

Mr. Blinken’s onstage foray quickly drew barbs online from critics who, citing starvation in Gaza or horror in Kharkiv, said that this was no time for a cabinet official to be jamming in jeans. “This is not a serious administration,” a Republican National Committee account posted on the social media.

But the moment appeared to serve its purpose. A policy address by Mr. Blinken earlier in the day about long-term support for Ukraine was something less than a hit on social media. By Tuesday afternoon, however, his politically tinged rocking was going viral.

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By Oghale

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